Missouri could be distributing the first commercial doses of a COVID-19 vaccine as soon as next month, the state health director said Tuesday.
Dr. Randall Williams, who leads the Department of Health and Senior Services, told a House committee he expects the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer to seek federal permission to release the first vaccine within the next two weeks.
The company announced Monday that its candidate has been more than 90 percent effective in preventing the disease among test volunteers with no evidence of prior infection — a rate significantly better than the average flu vaccine.
Review of the vaccine by the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control will take another two weeks or so; if everything goes smoothly, it’ll be ready for distribution after that.
“We fully anticipate having a vaccine in mid-December to start implementation,” Williams said.
At that point, Williams said Missouri will get access to enough doses to inoculate thousands of people, with more coming each week.
Per the state’s rollout plan released last month, the first of those doses will go to health care workers treating the sick and nursing home workers tending to those likeliest to die if they get sick.
“We’re trying to reach our most vulnerable populations, those at most risk,” Williams said.
The doses will be stored in five locations throughout the state where they can be safely stored at ultra-cold temperatures and workers will be brought into whichever is closest.
Once those people are vaccinated, the state will start offering vaccines to people at high risk of getting very sick if they're infected, including people over the age of 65 and people with chronic conditions like heart disease.
Emergency responders, teachers, agriculture workers and others deemed part of “critical infrastructure” will also be next in line, followed by others at increased risk such as homeless people and prison inmates.
Groups disproportionately affected by the disease, such as Black people, will also be given priority in that second phase.
Williams said he expects it will take until April or May to get through those categories, which the state estimates will apply to roughly 2.8 million people.
After that, the state will start offering vaccines to anyone who wants one.
“So we clearly believe that every Missourian and every American who wants a vaccine by the end of the year 2021 can have a vaccine,” he said.
Despite that, Williams acknowledged that not everyone would want a vaccine despite consensus among experts that widespread adoption is the world’s best chance at controlling a virus that has killed more than 1.2 million people.
Just 51 percent of roughly 10,000 American adults surveyed by Pew Research Center in September said they would “definitely” or “probably” get the vaccine, and a recent Saint Louis University poll found similar results in Missouri.
But Williams said he and others in public health are trying to push back on concerns by reducing costs and emphasizing the intensive safety review the vaccine goes through at the federal level.
The vaccine is free, and while providers will be allowed to charge a $23 administration fee, a health department spokeswoman said they'll have to give people vaccines whether or not they can pay the fee.
Williams said the state also hopes to put on mass inoculation events where no fees will be charged.
But under questioning from lawmakers, Williams also made clear he, like Gov. Mike Parson, would not support increasing vaccination rates with a mandate.
He took a similar tack when lawmakers asked him about what more the state can do to reduce caseloads in the months before a vaccine is widely available.
Many experts have recommended a statewide mask mandate in recent months to rein in rising numbers of cases and deaths.
Cities like St. Louis, Kansas City and Springfield have their own rules in place to slow the spread, but officials and health care providers say it’s not enough when their hospitals serve more than just city residents and many surrounding communities aren’t taking the same precautions.
Williams said he respects that point of view, but maintained that leaving decisions on restrictions to each city and county is the best policy.
“I just do not believe one size fits all in Missouri,” he said.
He added that trying to enforce some policies could actually make people less likely to take precautions.